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Wine to me is passion. It's family and friends. It's warmth of heart and generosity of spirit. Wine is art. It's culture. It's the essence of civilization and the art of living. - Robert Mondavi

Iron Horse - A seriously down to earth sparkling wine experience

Saturday, February 11, 2012

If the notion of visiting a Chateau to taste Champagne (properly termed sparkling wine here in California) seems like as much fun as having tea with your great aunt, but you’re still craving a sparkling experience, look no further than Iron Horse for the most warm, welcoming, down to earth sparkling wine tasting you’ll find in Northern California. Head north on Highway 116 past Sonoma and enjoy the unique drive through eclectic Sebastopol, busting at the seams with antique stores, roadside cafes and kitschy arts here’s anything at the end of the road. Right before you give up and turn around, you’ll suddenly find yourself mesmerized as the view opens up to 350 acres covered with grape vines. Continue on a one-lane dirt road across a small bridge, past the organic vegetable gardens, between palm and olive tree-lined drive and finally you’ve arrived at the charming Iron Horse Winery, with stunning views of Green Valley all the way to Mt. St. Helena.

In the place of a Chateau, you’ll find an unpretentious redwood-barn style winery and the outdoor tasting room overlooking the valley. The vibe is casual, welcoming and warm – you can walk right up to the wooden tasting counter and select a flight to taste at your leisure. You might take your glass for a stroll to look at the sweeping view or if you are visiting on a Friday, call in advance to schedule a tour of the winery, led by the winemaker, David Munsgard. I arrived on a sunny Sunday in January, and the tasting room was as bright and lively as their sparkling wine. The staff are knowledgeable and friendly and the lilting upbeat music in the background lends to the homey feeling of the winery. But the wines are no joke – the sparkling wines have been served at the White House for a quarter century, beginning with the historic Reagan-Gorbachev Summit Meetings, hence the special “Russian Cuvee” with a specially designed Russian bottle. The winery also produces special cuvees for Michael Mina, Bradley Ogden, Commander's Palace, and Disney – aptly named the “Fairytale Cuvee”. Iron Horse also makes custom engraved large format bottles which are great to purchase for special occasions (If you open one at your wedding, you can return to the winery and they’ll put the cork back in the empty bottle to preserve as a keepsake).

I wanted to learn more about the history and name of the winery, which can be deceiving. Iron Horse bears its name from a train that stopped at Ross Station at the turn of the 20th Century. The logo, the rampant horse on a weathervane, came from an actual weathervane that was unearthed when they were leveling the ground to build the winery. Today, Iron Horse is one of Sonoma County's most prestigious, small, independent, estate, family owned wineries. The founding partners, Audrey and Barry Sterling, first saw it in the pouring rain in February 1976. Having extraordinary vision and passion, they purchased the property just two weeks later. Having lived in France, the Sterlings knew the cool, foggy climate was perfect for cultivating Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes used to make sparkling wines. There were 110 acres in vine at the time, originally planted by Forrest Tancer when he was working for Rodney Strong. Forrest and the Sterlings became partners, upgraded the vineyard, built the winery and produced their first vintage of Estate Chardonnay in 1978. The winery officially opened in 1979 with the first vintage of Estate Pinot Noir on Barry Sterling's 50th birthday. The first vintage for the Sparkling Wines was 1980. The informality of Iron Horse’s tasting room, the awe-inspiring views of Green Valley, and the crisp, delicate and extraordinarily dry sparkling wines make Iron Horse the perfect place to visit and taste in lieu of your typical Sunday brunch a la mimosa.

Tasting Notes:

2003 Brut LD - $85.00 - Total Production: 489 cases

LD Stands for Late Disgorged and this wine is aged longer than other Iron Horse sparkling wines - 7 years in the bottle on the yeast lees – giving it a rich, creamy, lingering mouth feel. The Brut LD is only made in exceptional vintages and is composed of a blend of the free run juice from the favorite lots of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from that year. It is rich and malty with fruit notes of lemon curd, lychee and pineapple, and toasted almond finish. Wine Enthusiast and Wine & Spirits have both awarded this release 93 points.

2007 Brut "X" - $50.00 -Total production: 500 cases.

Brut "X" is the very driest brut, with a dosage under 0.6% residual sugar. The wine is so dry it seems to evaporate right off your palate. It extremely bright and expressive with notes of grapefruit, lime and green apple and good minerality. The 2004 vintage was awarded 94 points by Wine Enthusiast and 90 points by the Wine Advocate's Robert Parker.

2006 Classic Vintage Brut - $34.00 - Total production:1,525 cases.

This is the most traditional of the Iron Horse Sparklings; a classy blend of 68% Pinot Noir and 32% Chardonnay, aged an average of four years on the yeast in the bottle. It is a great food wine – warm, rich and yeasty like fresh baked bread with fruit notes of baked apple, orange zest, and a toasty caramel finish. <>The 2005 earned 93 points in Wine Spectator and the 2003 vintage earned 92 points from Wine & Spirits.

2006 Ocean Reserve - $40.00 - Total Production: 800 cases

Ocean Reserve is a special, limited edition Sparkling Wine created in partnership with National Geographic to benefit the ocean. For every bottle purchased, Iron Horse will donate $4 to establish marine protected areas and reduce overfishing around the world. The vintage is 2005, 100% Chardonnay, aged four plus years. This wine tastes very clean and green (as the name would suggest) with great minerality and acidity that would pair beautifully with seafood. This special cuvee was designed by Iron Horse Winemaker David Munskgard and National Geographic’s Barton Seaver. Early supporters of Ocean Reserve include Chef Eric Ripert at le Bernardin in New York, Chef Rick Moonen at RM Seafood in Las Vegas and select Whole Foods stores across the country.


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